There are so many points of view today on just about everything, and due to the internet and social media, it is easier than ever for errors to be propagated. Studies also show the average Christian’s knowledge of doctrine is far lower than it should be. Because of these and other factors, we must be able to identify and correct error for the sake of the lives and souls of those close to us (1 Timothy 4:16). But disagreeing in a way that isn’t disagreeable is a skill, and it is one that takes practice to develop.
While I don’t claim to be an expert at it, here are three tips that have helped me have more productive discussions in the face of doctrinal disagreements.
1. Care about the person; critique the idea.
Bad ideas do no harm on their own. Incorrect doctrine in a dusty book on the shelf harms no one as long as the book stays there. Harmful ideas are really only harmful in as much as they are held and promoted by people. So the reason we should care about ideas is that we care about people. We should critique ideas out of love for the person who holds them and the people they influence. The stakes are high; what we believe truly matters (John 20:31).
Far too many disagreements today are more personal than they should be. As we have seen with the sexual revolution, people routinely identify their beliefs with themselves, not separate from themselves. Increasingly, this even occurs with Christians. It is harder than ever to have a discussion about the merits—and only the merits—of a point of view, but this is exactly what we must try to do. While it is nearly impossible to only critique the idea and not the person, since by critiquing the idea you are saying the person is wrong to hold it, we must focus as much as possible on the ideas while lovingly affirming our care for the person.
For some of us, the emphasis on “loving” is where we need the most work; we may have little problem seeing and addressing error. But to paraphrase Paul, “If we correct doctrine and have not love, we are a clanging cymbal.” Others of us may need to work on our ability to identify error. Lastly, many of us may simply need the courage to confront errors we know of while not fearing the social cost or name-calling that may result.
2. Ask yourself: If understood charitably, does the person have a valid point?
In my experience, many disagreements can be avoided by trying to understand the other person’s position charitably, as we would want others to do for us. I find it helpful to ask, “Is there a way for this statement to be true?” instead of trying to find a way in which it can be wrong. Now, ambiguities in a position can be a liability since they increase the chances that someone may get the wrong idea, or they could in fact be evidence of error. However, a lack of clarity does not mean that a person is wrong. If we seek clarification with an attitude of kindness (see step one), we are much less likely to harm a relationship, should the person not be in error.
It must be said, though, sometimes ambiguity and equivocation is an intentional means of obscuring a point so as to make it seem more palatable to those who may otherwise have disagreed. Discernment is always called for when interpreting others, especially in matters of doctrine.
3. Use a tactical approach.
Lastly, in order to have better conversations that contain disagreements, we should use a tactical approach—use questions! Questions help achieve our prior two steps, though they do more than that. Questions allow us to get clarity on a person’s point of view so we understand what they actually believe, not just what we initially understood. After asking some questions like, “What do you mean by that?” we may determine that there is no disagreement after all. In a way, they give the benefit of the doubt to the other person (step two).
Questions are also less threatening; they minimize the chance that the disagreement will seem like an attack. And in this way, they help us with step one—caring about the person, not just critiquing the idea.
Should we determine that even after clarification an error is present, we can use questions to help make this point, like, “Have you considered that [insert point here]?”
Much of the New Testament contains letters correcting the doctrine of others; disagreeing with someone is not a negative thing. But we must strive to disagree in a loving way while trying to graciously understand where the other person is coming from. Sometimes, disagreeing is the most loving thing we can do, but we must ensure that our manner matches our message.